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DesMoinesRegister.com - Thompson Zeroes in on Ideas, Issues

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DesMoinesRegister.com - Thompson Zeroes in on Ideas, Issues

By ROX LAIRD

Tommy Thompson is disappointed. He's disappointed that other presidential candidates are not as serious about policy issues as he is. And he has a point.

That's frustrating for a guy like Thompson, 65, a Republican who has spent most of his career dedicated to getting things done. Like welfare reform in a state with as many uber-liberals as Wisconsin, or as secretary of Health and Human Services in George W. Bush's first term.

In a campaign where hair styles seem to take precedence over substance, Thompson stands apart if only because he wants to talk so much about substantive issues. Indeed, in a conversation with the Register's editorial-page staff last week, Thompson repeated maybe a half-dozen times that he is the only candidate talking about hard issues.

Thompson arrived in the afternoon, after an earlier stop at Des Moines University, where he talked about his favorite topic - health care. He seemed fatigued - on the campaign trail by 4 a.m. - yet he looked crisp in a dark suit, white shirt with french cuffs and a bright red paisley tie. If he was tired, he lit up when the topic turned to issues he's passionate about.

Such as health care.

"Isn't it amazing? Two debates, and not one question has been asked of any candidate on health care or on education."

He would emphasize preventive care, use of electronic medical records, and insurance pools for the uninsured, which private insurers would bid to cover, among other approaches.

Such as the looming Medicare funding crisis.

Thompson reels off the numbers in the manner of a teacher tired of repeating the same lesson to a bunch of kids eager for the recess bell. "Medicare is a much more serious problem than Social Security. The Gross National Product in America right now is about 13 trillion dollars, and the unfunded liability for Social Security over 75 years about 11.8 trillion dollars. That's huge. But what do you think the unfunded liability in Medicare will be in 75 years? Want to hazard a guess?" We didn't, so he supplied the answer: "65 trillion dollars. I mean it's just so large that people don't even want to think about it. And so you're going to have to address it."

Thompson's solution? He has some ideas - such as reducing the inflationary growth of Medicare benefits - but he was reluctant to go into detail in our meeting. "I have not gone into specifics on Medicare because that is all you would dwell on, and that will start scaring people. I don't want to scare anybody. I want people to come together and recognize we have a huge problem, and we have to come together on a bipartisan basis and deal with Medicare."

You get the feeling Thompson is serious about working in a collaborative way in Washington - not to demagogue. One reason is his record as a governor, when, he said, he would wake up at 3 a.m. with a good idea and have somebody working on it by 11. But could he get things done as president?

"When I went to Washington as secretary, I still had the ideas. But then I had to vet it through 65,000 employees, all of which thought they were smarter than the secretary, and believed that all they had to do was hunker down and he or she will be gone in a few years. And then if you did get by them, it goes over to the [Office of Management and Budget]. And if you do get OMB to buy into it, it goes over to the super intelligentsia at the White House. The super intelligentsia is a young college graduate who has never had a job but who has worked on a campaign and now has got a job in the White House and doesn't believe anything original or intelligent can come out of a [Cabinet] secretary. And if you get by that step, then it goes to the president, and if the president buys into it, it goes on to Congress, and if Congress ever does pass it, it is time to retire. That's why nothing gets done."

Still, Thompson is optimistic he could bring change.

"There needs to be much more bipartisanship," he said. "I think the American people are ready for a president who is going to cross the lines and be able to work with the other side and be able to offer suggestions, advice, cajoling, using the bully pulpit to get things done."


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